A film festival with a well-balanced, worldly wise, and history conscious sensibility — which the SBIFF is — needs to keep its perspective near, far, and wide. In the past few days, Harold Lloyd’s 1925-vintage silent film The Freshman hit the Arlington’s big screen (with the glorious in-house theater organ in action), and the festival has wisely bowed to cinematic culture by screening the late, great Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s swan song effort, Afterimage.
For Wajda, who died last October at age 90, Afterimage was the final, impassioned, and magnificently made canvas in a remarkable, prolific, and influential life in cinema, as well as a powerful statement that has eerie implications in America, post-1-20-17. Wajda’s tribute to the avant-garde artist and theorist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, whose life unravels in the first wave of fascist rule under the USSR in the late 1940s, is essentially a portrait of an artist as an ostracized “degenerate artist,” in a nation beginning a reign of new tyranny after WWII’s ravages.
It’s a treat for the senses, as well. Aside from cinematographer Pawel Edelman’s rapturous and careful camera work, the dissonance-salted chamber music score by the late Andrzej Panufnik is clearly one of the greatest music scores of the festival so far.
In one early, stage-setting scene, we find the painter, missing a hand and a leg, working in his studio suddenly suffused in red — as an epic red banner bearing Stalin’s mug is draped over his upstairs window facing the streets. Later, a more sobering scene finds the artist stumbling amidst mannequins in a shop window where he has stooped to dressing mannequins for money. Scenes like these etch immediately into the memory and, along with the organic artistic unity of the whole piece, make for a profound farewell from a film giant. Any analogies to be made between the rights-tightening atmosphere of this tale and contemporary situations underway can be made at your leisure. Or risk?
This Polish cinema encounter puts some of us SBIFF long-timers in mind of one festival, many years ago, when Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Ten Commandments”-themed masterpiece, Decalogue, was programmed over the course of a week, with episodes each day at noon. That’s our idea of a good time at the movies.
Random Film Fest Housekeeping and Field Notes: While heading into see Welcome Home, a couple of volunteers in the friendly gauntlet at the Metro entrance greeted us with the logical, but initially surprising round of “welcome home.” It made sense, for me and a sizable posse who have called the SBIFF venues a second (or sub-primary) home for the past week.
Closing out last night’s “Outstanding Directors” tribute at the Arlington, richly and rightfully stocked with 2017 Oscar contenders Barry (Moonlight) Jenkins, Damien (La La Land) Chazelle, Denis (Arrival) Villeneuve, and Kenneth (Manchester by the Sea) Lonergan, the long Santa Barbara-based director Paul Brickman, who helmed Risky Business and the underrated Jessica Lange-starring jewel Men Don’t Leave, appeared for trophy supplying duty. He made a salient point about the artists gathered on this stage: “In this corporate world of ours, these were fierce personal visions.” True that. This distinguished collection of Oscar-dusted films is one cause for celebration as an American, and make perfect sense as projects to be toasted at a film festival. There is hope yet for Hollywood.
What to See File: Of the films on today’s (Wednesday’s) docket, I can recommend: Afterimage, The Distinguished Citizen, Codename Holec, The Fury of a Patient Man, and a qualified thumbs up for Welcome Home, a Belgian film about two wayward youths heading for a life in crime, but how deeply? How irredeemably? In the ambiguous balance hangs a tale less reckless or morally rudderless than it sometimes seems on the surface.